Sunday, April 25, 2010

Following the Good Shepherd

John 10:22-30

I would like to begin this morning by reading the Twenty-third Psalm from the King James Version, because it is the version that we know best.
 2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 
 3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
 4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
 5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
 6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (Psalm 23, King James Version)

It’s a commonly held belief that sheep are dumb animals. This belief has given rise to the phrase "to fleece," which is used in reference to stealing from a person who is unaware of what is taking place. With our common presuppositions about sheep, could it be that Jesus is insulting us by calling us sheep?

Before we go looking for a new metaphor, one that may seem a bit less derogatory, perhaps we should first reconsider the reputation of sheep. Are they really as dumb as we’ve been led to believe? Could it be that they’ve just gotten bad press?

This seems to be the case. Apparently sheep have had their reputations smeared by cattle ranchers. As you may know from watching westerns on TV, cattle-ranchers hate sheep and their herders with a passion. Ranchers, who are predisposed to cattle, decided that sheep are dumb because sheep don't act like cattle. For instance, when you herd cattle, you drive them from behind by whooping and hollering and cracking whips. If you try this with sheep, they’ll just circle around you. It seems you can't drive sheep; you have to lead them. Sheep won't go anywhere unless they know that there is someone out in front making sure that everything is okay. So who are the dumb ones?


Sheep and shepherds are prominent images in Scripture. Jacob, Moses, and David were all shepherds, and according to Luke, shepherds were the first people to receive the message of Jesus' birth. In John 10 we find a series of statements from the lips of Jesus, in which he describes himself as the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11). There is a good reason why all these biblical characters were shepherds, and why sheep figure so prominently in biblical imagery: Sheep were, after all, the primary form of livestock in Palestine. It’s important to also note that the people of Israel didn't consider them to be stupid. They knew what sheep were capable of and so they didn’t take offense at being called sheep.

In this morning’s text, Jesus lifts up a specific attribute of sheep – they can recognize the voice of their shepherd. Not only that, but they will only follow the voice of that one shepherd. The reason sheep will only respond to the voice or call of their own shepherd is because they know that they can count on their shepherd to keep them safe. When danger comes, they won't run off like the hireling. Therefore, sheep get very attached to their shepherds.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a conversation with a friend who grew up around sheep. Her friend told her that "he could walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing a single one of them, while a stranger could not step foot in the fold without causing pandemonium." If you meet up with a group of Bedouins today at an oasis in the Middle East you will see a scene very similar to what was common in first century Palestine. Although several flocks might gather at the same watering hole, the Bedouin shepherds don’t try to keep them apart, because when the shepherd is ready to leave, he or she gives off a distinctive call or whistle and the flock gathers to that shepherd. Taylor writes: “They know whom they belong to; they know their shepherd's voice, and it is the only one they will follow.”* It would seem that sheep aren't all that dumb after all; they know whom they can trust and whom not to trust, and they respond only to that one voice. If, then, we are part of Jesus’ flock, then we’ll recognize his voice and follow him.

In our day there are many voices calling out to us. They appeal to our emotions, our needs, our desires, our pride., and our fears They prey upon our sense of rootlessness, that nomadic spirit that has infected our age. And into this spiral of confusion, we hear Jesus saying to us: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me” (Jn. 10:27).


Despite the bad press that sheep tend to receive, the reason we’re attracted to the images of sheep and shepherd, is that they provide us with a sense of comfort and well-being. This sensibility is reinforced by the 23rd Psalm, which begins with the line: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." By describing himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus takes over the imagery of the Psalm, imagery that is used by the Psalmist to describe Yahweh’s relationship to the people of God. Indeed, in John’s account, Jesus goes so far as to say: “the Father and I are one.” That is, when you think of the Lord being your shepherd, think also of Jesus, because they are of one purpose.

As we ponder the meaning of the claim put on the lips of Jesus, "I am the Good Shepherd," it would be appropriate for us to consider how this Psalm defines what that means. We love this Psalm because it speaks of God's comforting presence in difficult times. We love the images of green pastures and still waters, because they speak of peacefulness and serenity. But, earlier readers of the Psalm likely would have heard something different. They would have heard a word about God's provision for his people. Green pastures suggest food and still waters a safe place to drink, things that sheep living in a desert climate couldn't take for granted. They trusted the shepherd to scout out and find food and water for them. They also had confidence that when trouble came, the shepherd would protect them.

The traditional rendering of verse 4 of Psalm 23 says: "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil." It is this verse that leads so many people to choose it for funerals, but a better translation of the verse would be:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff -- they comfort me.
The sheep have confidence that when they walk through even the darkest valley, their shepherd, armed with rod and staff, will not let anything happen to them. They will make it through the difficult times that face them. If God is our shepherd, we need not fear, for God stands with us.


This discussion of the Good Shepherd comes in the midst of a discussion about the identity of the Messiah. The religious leaders of the day couldn’t accept Jesus in this role, because he didn’t act as they expected a Messiah to act. In John’s account, Jesus responds by telling them that their opposition stems from the fact that they’re simply not his sheep. If they had been his sheep, they would have known his voice, and responded to his promise of protection and security. I should point out here that there is another audience in mind as well – it’s the opponents of the Beloved Disciple. There was division in that early Christian community, and the one who wrote this account is speaking to them, calling on them to heed the voice of Jesus that came through him. Who is the Messiah, the one sent from God, the one who will speak a word of comfort, of challenge, and guidance? And will we know this voice?

Although we hear a word of comfort in the image of the Good Shepherd that doesn’t seem to be the point that John wants to make. He places this image in the midst of a discussion that Jesus has with these opponents that continue to question his authority to speak. So, when we hear Jesus talking about heeding the voice of the shepherd, he’s talking about allegiance, loyalty, and a willingness to follow.

There are many voices in the world that are calling out to us. The question is, which one will we hear and abide? I think sometimes we falter in our allegiance because we’re fearful. Maybe we’re afraid that God won’t come through in our time of need, and so we switch our allegiance to the one who promises us peace and security. And, in every age there are demagogues promising us peace and security, if only we will follow them. It’s tempting to listen and follow, but will these voices lead us through the darkest valleys?

Our hope lies in hearing and following the Messiah of God, the one who is the Good Shepherd. If we’re to do this, then it’s important to get to know this Shepherd’s voice, to learn the uniqueness of his call. This involves all of the Christian practices – prayer, study, meditation, conversation, listening, worshiping. Yes, sheep get lost only when they stop listening for the shepherd’s voice, and this happens when the sheep lose contact with the shepherd.

Remember the sheep have confidence in the shepherd because the shepherd has been there for them, and the same is true of us. Without taking exclusivist detours that build fences to keep others out of the conversation, there is in John’s message, the reminder that through an act of grace, God seeks out God’s sheep. Therefore, if we hear the Shepherd’s voice calling out to us, if we’re willing to attune ourselves to the Shepherd’s voice, then we can have confidence when we walk through the darkest of valleys of life, whether they are sickness, loss of jobs, a disaster, or death of a loved one. We have this confidence because we know that in Jesus, God has already gone before us and scouted out the path. If we stick close to him, we will make it through safely. That doesn't mean that the wolves won't nip at our heels, but the Lord is with us, to lead us safely through the danger.

*Barbara Brown Taylor quoted in Pulpit Resource, 29 (April, May, June 2001): 30.
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
April 25, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Easter

Sunday, April 18, 2010

An Unexpected Guest

John 20:1-19

What would do you do if someone were to show up unexpectedly on your doorstep? It might be a parent or in-law, a long lost friend, or a mentor. You’re not expecting them to come to your house, so you have no way of preparing ahead of time. In such a case, how do you respond? Are you hospitable and welcoming? Are you apologetic? Or do you just shut the door?

Now, let me push this scenario a bit further: When the unexpected guest arrives at your doorstep are you ready for them to change the course of your life? Sort of like the late Ed McMahon showing up on your doorstep with a Publisher’s Clearing House check? Now, that would change your life, wouldn’t it?

This is a question that’s often raised in the biblical story. Consider the strangers who visit Abraham and Sarah while they are camping at the Oaks of Mamre. As was appropriate in their culture, Abraham invites the strangers in, offering them a place of rest and refreshment. In return, the travelers offer Abraham and Sarah a promise – they will have a child in their old age, and this child will fulfill the promise that God had made in covenanting with Abraham and Sarah, in their descendants God will bless the nations (Genesis 18:1-15).

Then, in Luke we read about a stranger who joins up with two disciples of Jesus, as they head for Emmaus. This stranger explains to them the gospel, but only later as they share a meal, do they realize that it was the risen Jesus who had been explaining the things of God to them (Luke 24:13ff).

Finally, there’s the story of strangers who show up on Peter’s doorstep, even as he is experiencing a vision. These visitors represent a Roman centurion named Cornelius. As a result of their visit, Peter hears the call to extend the gospel to the Gentile world (Acts 10-11).

So, who are the unexpected guests who have impacted your lives with their witness? Can you say, that you were willing to receive their witness? These are questions that are posed to us in the closing chapter of John’s Gospel.

1. Going Fishing

The story begins with seven men sitting on a beach along the Lake of Tiberias. It’s a familiar story, because when we become discouraged or anxious about the direction of our lives, we tend to return to what we know best. Peter was a fisherman, and along with six of his fellow disciples, all Galileans, he had returned home to the only life he’d known before he had encountered Jesus. In his anxiety, he simply says to his friends: “I’m going fishing.” And they respond: “We’ll go with you.” This might not be the response you’d expect from people who had seen the risen Christ and had received the Spirit of God from Jesus (John 20). Indeed, in the prior chapter, Thomas has his own doubts assuaged by Jesus, but now things seem much less certain than they appear at the end of chapter 20, where we read a very fitting conclusion to the Gospel:

“But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31).
That sounds so final, and yet someone decided to add an epilogue, another story to tidy things up. And in this epilogue, we encounter an unexpected guest with an unexpected word for us. After spending the night out on the lake, casting their nets in all of their favorite fishing holes, they return to the shore at daybreak empty-handed. Can you identify with these disciples? Have you busied yourself with other things, because you’re uncertain as to where God is leading? And when you do this, do you find yourself returning home empty-handed? Can you identify with their frustration?
2. Recognition of the Unexpected Guest

The story continues, and when the boat nears the shore the group of fishermen see someone standing on the beach, waving at them. They weren’t expecting anyone to be there to greet them on the beach, and so they’re even more surprised when the man yells out at them and tells this tired and disappointed group of fishermen to throw their nets out one more time, but this time on the right side of the boat. If you were one of the disciples, would you follow these directions given to you by a stranger? Or, would you laugh off the suggestion? I mean, why would they be more successful on the right of the boat than the left? But, as silly as it seems, they follow the stranger’s advice, and to their amazement, they pull in so many fish that they barely stay afloat. It’s such a big haul that you’d think the net would break, and yet it doesn’t.

In their moment of surprise, the Beloved Disciple recognizes the man on the shore, and he cries out: “It’s the Lord!” How does he know? How else could such a thing have happened? But, while the Beloved Disciple is the first to recognize Jesus, it’s Peter who acts upon this recognition. Peter is a man of action, and so he pulls on his clothes, which he has shed in the course of his work, and jumps into the water, and swims to shore, abandoning the catch. Peter seems to understand that his life no longer involves catching these kinds of fish. As he arrives, he discovers the stranger, busy building a fire and preparing breakfast. Yes, in a twist upon the usual story, it’s the unexpected guest, who offers hospitality – in this case a meal of fish and bread.

As the disciples eat this meal, they dare not ask who it is who has welcomed them, for they all recognized him. As with Luke’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the disciples heading toward Emmaus, recognition seems to happen as Jesus breaks and distributes bread. What is interesting is that John’s gospel doesn’t have an explicit description of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper. But, you will find instances where Jesus speaks of bread and fish and wine, and in each case, Jesus reveals something about himself to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see what God is doing in their midst. As you ponder this scene, do you hear a word about what happens when we break bread together at the Table. Do you begin to recognize the presence of Jesus at the Table, offering his life to you in the symbols of bread and cup?

Yes, where do you see Jesus present? Is he present in the meals we share with one another? Is he present in the stranger we encounter on the street? Do you see him in the person crying out in pain and suffering? This is the question of the hour – how do we recognize the Lord in our midst?

3. A Commission

This epilogue is not simply a story of recognition. It is also the story of a commissioning to service. John’s gospel closes with one of the most famous scenes in Scripture. Jesus enters into an intense conversation with Peter, who had denied knowing Jesus three different times on the night of his trial. Peter had promised to stand by him, to the bitter end, but he couldn’t fulfill his promise. Fear got the better of him, and now guilt and shame are eating at his soul. Knowing Peter’s heart, Jesus asks Peter three times, whether Peter loves him. Each time Jesus asks the question, Peter answers, “Yes Lord, You know I love you” And each time Jesus responds with a commission – “tend my sheep.” There is pain in Peter’s voice, but Jesus is offering forgiveness and healing so that Peter might fulfill his calling.

As we read this conversation, we might see in it the basis for commissioning pastors and elders to care for the flock. That would be an appropriate application. Jesus says to those who are called to leadership – if you love me then tend to my sheep. But is this word directed only to those called to church leadership? Or is it a word to all of us?

Remember the context here. According to the story, Peter has denied Jesus three times, and in this threefold call and response, Jesus heals Peter’s soul and restores him to fellowship. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks of Peter and us. In that question, Jesus acknowledges that Peter has denied him, even as we deny him, whether it is in word or in deeds. And each time that Peter responds with an acknowledgment of his love, Jesus reminds him of his calling.

Peter needed this word of assurance and reminder. After all, having been called to be a fisher of people, he had returned to a life of fishing for fish. He did this because he believed that his denials had compromised his ability to fulfill his calling. And while John’s gospel doesn’t include the commission to fish for people, I believe it’s appropriate to hear in this exchange a sense of that calling. Peter won’t be going back to his old life. Jesus has something else in store for him and for us.

Yes, the unexpected guest, who is standing by the lakeshore, is asking us: Do you love me? If we answer yes, then his response will be: then “feed my sheep.” Or, to put it a bit differently, Jesus is answering the question Cain posed to God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And, the answer is: “Yes, you are, if you love me.”
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Third Sunday of Easter
April 18, 2010

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ultimate Allegiance

Acts 5:27-32

When I was a child, we began every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance. In doing this we declared our love and support for our nation. I doubt if I really understood the implications of my pledge; it was just something I said every morning as school began. Only later, when I got older, did I begin to understand what it means to give my allegiance to my country. I also learned that not everyone agreed on what allegiance means. Do I, for instance, have to love it or leave it, as the old bumper sticker suggests? Do I have to agree with everything our government does in order to be a loyal citizen?

With these questions about loyalty and allegiance circling in our minds, Christians face another question – is allegiance to the nation the ultimate allegiance? Or, does our allegiance to God trump our allegiance to family, to community, to nation? As we think on these questions, consider for a moment those who risked their lives in the 1930s and 1940s to hide their Jewish neighbors or smuggle them to safety in defiance of German law. Or consider the people who participated in the Underground Railroad, shuttling escaped slaves north to Canada, and in doing so, broke the Fugitive Slave Law. These folks believed that there was a higher law than that of the nation. So, to whom do we owe ultimate allegiance?


As we meet this morning on the far side of Easter, we hear the story of the choices that faced the earliest Christians. From the earliest days of the church, Christians have had to choose between their allegiance to God and their allegiance to culture and nation. In every age and culture, leaders have appealed to patriotism, nationalism, and loyalty to the fatherland or to the clan. And yes, this is true even here in this country, where we hear demagogues stir up crowds with the words: “Let’s take back our country.”

The Easter story reminds us that our loyalties go beyond family, clan, or nation. Whatever our national allegiances might be, we are first of all citizens of God’s kingdom, who acclaim Jesus, the one who has risen from the dead, as “Leader and Savior.” We are here today, because of the resurrection. It is the risen Christ who breathes the Spirit upon the disciples and commissions them to share the word of forgiveness (Jn 20:22-23). It is also the risen Christ who commissions the church to carry the message of God’s grace to the ends of the earth – once the Spirit empowers them (Acts 1:8).

This morning we move directly into the post-Easter world. Acts 5 describes a jail break of epic proportions, but, the jail breakers didn’t flee very far. No, they went right back to the Temple and began to preach, knowing that they would likely face arrest again. So, now they stand before the authorities, having to answer the question: to whom do you owe your allegiance?


From the day of Pentecost until the time of Constantine, being a Christian was dangerous if you lived in the Roman Empire. To be a Christian was considered an act of treason, and thus arrest and even martyrdom was common. And, why was being a Christian considered an act of treason? Being a Christian was deemed an act of treason, because the Romans didn't believe in the separation of church and state. If you were a loyal Roman, you proved it by offering sacrifices to the emperor, who was proclaimed the divine Lord of the empire. Now, this was a problem for Christians, because they had only one Lord, and that was Christ. So when they refused to sacrifice and give their ultimate allegiance to the emperor, the government had no choice but to suppress them.

The Romans tried to suppress the Christians by crucifying them, beheading them, burning them at the stake, or throwing them into the arena to face wild beasts and gladiators. They hoped that these violent acts would be a deterrent, but history suggests that this persecution didn’t work. History is full of stories about people such as Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch, who gave up their lives for their faith. But it wasn't just men who faced martyrdom – there were also many women counted among the martyrs.

Consider the story of Perpetua. She was a new mother, but she refused to deny her faith, even if that denial would save her life, and allow her to be with her baby. Perpetua wasn't even a full member of the church when she was martyred. She was still preparing herself for baptism, when she gave birth to her child in prison, and watched as her pagan father took the baby away from her. The father hoped Perpetua would give up this crazy idea and come home, and care for her baby. But, she refused and the authorities sent her into the arena to face a wild bull. She was severely wounded, but she wouldn’t give in. The account of her martyrdom is simply amazing.

Perpetua was tossed first and fell on her back, She sat up, and being more concerned with her sense of modesty than with her pain, covered her thighs with her gown which had been torn down one side. Then finding her hair-clip which had fallen out, she pinned back her loose hair thinking it not proper for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair; it might seem that she was mourning in her hour of triumph.  ["The Martyrdom of Perpetua," in Amy Oden, ed., In Her Words, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 35-37].

When the bull failed to kill her, a gladiator's sword finished the job. But that happened only when she guided the sword to her own throat. As the writer records: "Perhaps it was that so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not have been slain had she herself not willed it."

Another woman named Crispina, was beheaded during the reign of Diocletian. At her trial, the judge tried to get her to sacrifice, but she refused, even when the judge threatened to have her beheaded. Crispina replied, "I should thank my God, if I obtained this. I should be very happy to lose my head for the sake of my God. For I refuse to sacrifice to these ridiculous deaf and dumb statues" [Oden, In Her Words, pp. 45-46]. This call to embrace death as an act of loyalty is summed up in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous phrase: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." It was sixty-five years ago this past Friday that Bonhoeffer’s choice to defy the leaders of his own nation, led to his martyrdom.

The stories of Perpetua, Crispina, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, all give an answer to the question: To whom do I owe my allegiance? If we come back to Acts 5, we hear Peter give his answer to this question. When the chief priest and the members of the Sanhedrin demanded that Peter and the church submit to their authority and stop preaching about Jesus, Peter answered for the church: "We must obey God rather than human authority." When asked: To whom do you owe your allegiance? Peter replied, I owe my allegiance to the one whom God exalted to his "right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him" (5:31-32).


The Jehovah's Witnesses are often ridiculed and condemned because they refuse to pledge their allegiance to the flag. Many people see them as unpatriotic, but they might be on to something. They refuse to say the pledge for the same reason early Christians refused to sacrifice to the Roman emperor. They believe that the flag is an idol and a symbol of a rival claimant to their allegiance. They have asked and answered the question: How can you pledge allegiance to a nation, when you have pledged your allegiance to God? I might not agree totally with their solution, but there is truth in their question.

Although I’m proud to be a citizen of the United States and have no desire to live anywhere else – though Canada doesn’t seem such a bad place to live -- my allegiance to nation must come second to my allegiance to God and to Christ’s church, which extends far beyond national borders.

Peter is asking us the question: To whom do you owe your allegiance? Can we say with Peter, and with all due respect to the laws of this country: "[I] must obey God rather than human authority." Am I willing to count myself among those early Christians who left the council and "rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name?"

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday of Easter
April 11, 2010

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Sharing in God's Glory: Lord's Prayer Series #6

Luke 11:1-4; 1 Chronicles 29:10-13

It’s Easter, which is a day of joyous celebration. We’ve come to share in the Easter story with song and with word. We’ve come to offer to God words of praise, declaring our allegiance to the one who is risen from the dead. We’ve come in the hope of the resurrection, seeking to find strength and peace in the presence of God. It is in this context that we hear the call of God: Lift up your hearts, lift up your eyes, and behold what great things God is doing in your midst!

On this Easter morning, as we join in celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, we also bring to a close a series of sermons that focus on the Lord’s Prayer. You won’t find the closing statement of this prayer – “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever” – in either of the two gospel accounts of the Lord’s Prayer, at least not in our modern translations. As you may know, this is because this phrase isn’t found in out the oldest of our manuscripts. But, this closing statement fits this prayer quite well. It is as if it belongs from the very beginning.

That may be due in part to the fact that this doxology, this brief statement of praise and thanksgiving, has its roots in a very ancient passage of scripture. Hear then this word from 1 Chronicles 29, hearing in it the foundation for our confession of faith in God the Almighty and Everlasting Father.

10 Then David blessed the Lord in the presence of all the assembly; David said: ‘Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, for ever and ever. 11Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. 12Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. 13And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name. (1 Chronicles 29:10-13 NRSV)

We sing this song of thanksgiving and praise, entrusting our lives into the hands of the one who reigns over all, ever mindful that there are clouds hanging over our lives. The Lord’s Prayer, which closes with a song of praise and thanksgiving, includes as its penultimate word, a request of God, that God would keep us from the day of testing and from the clutches of the evil one. Yes, we come today, to celebrate resurrection, knowing that Good Friday is always part of the conversation.

Mindful that clouds hang over our lives and recognizing that many struggle to make sense of life and its challenges, we nonetheless come to celebrate the truth that by virtue of the cross and the resurrection, Christ now reigns over God’s kingdom. Having experienced our darkness, Christ opens the way for us to share in God’s glory. Let us, therefore, remember the choir’s invitation, which was offered in the opening moments of worship:

“Hear the bells ringing, they’re singing, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.”
May we, in response to that call to worship, offer joyous songs, singing from the heart, Alleluia, for Christ the Lord is risen indeed! This is the good news that will sustain us as we walk in the ways of God’s kingdom.

With the message of Easter ringing in our hearts and minds, let us return again to the prayer that Jesus taught us and attend to the doxology that the church in its wisdom has added to this prayer. It may not be original to Jesus, but it is an appropriate close to a prayer that calls for the name of God to be hallowed, for the reign of God to be extended across the earth, for our willingness to do the will of God on earth as in heaven; it is a prayer that requests of God basic provisions for life and for forgiveness of our debts, sins, and trespasses. Finally, this is a prayer that asks God to carry us through the time of testing. With these petitions in mind, this final doxology invites us to affirm four things about God – God’s reign, God’s power, God’s glory, and the eternity of God’s reign.

1. Kingdom

As we pray this prayer, knowing that it addresses God as our Father, which we’ve discovered means that God is our patron and ruler, we also know that this prayer is subversive. That is, when we pray this prayer, we’re swearing our allegiance to God’s kingdom. When we do this, we place limits on our allegiance to Caesar – or to whatever government or culture we happen to inhabit. Yes, Jesus said, give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s – your taxes and where appropriate your obedience – but remember that ultimately you belong to God, for God is your provider, not Caesar (Matthew 22:19-22).

As we consider what it means to give our allegiance to God, we ask that God would reveal to us a sense of what this kingdom looks like. If we examine the scriptures, we discover that God is calling us to create a parallel culture, a different way of living in the world, that is gracious and just, peaceable and purposeful. It is a new creation that is marked by love of God and love of neighbor.

In recent days, in light of all the angry rhetoric that is tearing apart the fabric of our society, Jim Wallis drew up a “covenant of civility.” In this covenant, which you can find posted on our web site, Christian leaders from across the ideological divide, have committed themselves to abide by this promise:

We pledge to God and to each other that we will lead by example in a country where civil discourse seems to have broken down. We will work to model a better way in how we treat each other in our many faith communities, even across religious and political lines. We will strive to create in our congregations safe and sacred spaces for common prayer and community discussion as we come together to seek God’s will for our nation and our world.

By participating in God’s kingdom, we can help create a different culture, one that isn’t just civil, which for some might simply mean being nice, but also one that is committed to the transformation of the way we live together in the presence of God. And, this experiment must start with the church. If the church can’t model civility, then there’s little hope for the future of our society.

2. Power

Having affirmed God’s reign, we also confess that God has the power to transform the world. In making this confession, I need to add a caveat. Although Scripture speaks of “almighty God,” it doesn’t speak of God omnipotent. That is, while God has the power, there are some things that God cannot do. God cannot, for instance, be, by our confession, be good and do that which is evil.

As we contemplate the nature of God’s power, it might be useful to think about how we envision power. For instance, the United States is considered a superpower, while China is an emerging superpower, and Russia is a declining one. When we think in these terms, power is defined by a nation’s military or economic prowess. This isn’t the kind of power, however, that is affirmed by this prayer.

As we think about this acclamation of God’s power, perhaps we should turn to Walter Wink for some help. Wink is a bible scholar of some note, and in reflecting on the power of God that’s addressed by this prayer, he suggests that in praying this, we’re actually commanding God to act by reminding God that God has the power and ability to bring into existence a new future and a new reality. Wink writes:

Prayer is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes. [Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, (New York: Galilee, 1998), p. 186]
This morning as we celebrate the resurrection, we see the first signs that the bonds we’ve placed on God’s hands and feet have been broken. The Temple and the Empire, which tried to tie the hands of God, have failed to finish the job. Because Christ the Lord is risen, death has lost its sting. Therefore, we no longer need to serve and fear death and its allies.

3. Glory

In the first sermon of this series we turned to Isaiah’s depiction of the heavenly realm. There, and again in Revelation, we see God siting upon the throne of heaven in glory. We see the heavenly host gathering around the throne, declaring that the Lord of hosts is holy and the “whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:1-3). Yes, the whole earth shares in the glory of God our creator, our redeemer, our sustainer, which means that we share in that glory ourselves. To help us join in this song of praise, we might want to share in the prayer enshrined in an old Harry Emerson Fosdick hymn:

God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour they power; crown thine ancient church’s story; bring its bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour, for the facing of this hour. (Chalice Hymnal, 464)
This glory of God, of which we sing, envelops and empowers us, not just so we can face this particular hour, but so that we might live fully in God’s presence every day, no matter what the situation might be. In the course of sharing in this glory, we also share in the establishment of God’s reign.

4. Forever

The prayer’s final assertion affirms the eternity of this reign of God: “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.” In making this affirmation we declare that God is not a human being writ large. Although we’ve been created in the image of God to bear witness to God’s power and glory, love and mercy, we’re not God, and whatever share in eternity that may come our way is a gift of God’s grace. Therefore, this final word stands before us as an offering of hope. It is a word that reflects the message of resurrection. Because God is eternal, we live in the hope of sharing God’s presence for eternity. With this word of hope, we can take confidence in the knowledge that God will be there at every moment in time. Yes, it is a promise that offers hope that we needn’t traverse this life alone.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Easter Sunday
April 4, 2010